Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Women, New Music and the Composition of Becomings

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Women, New Music and the Composition of Becomings

Article excerpt

Outmoded patterns of thought, to invoke Deleuze, plague the practices and discourses of 'new' classical music.1 Such a claim may seem absurd given 'new' music has earned a reputation for being unorthodox, experimental and subversive, and characterised by a mindset preoccupied with musical progress, complexity and historical necessity.2 In this essay I shall argue that despite the plethora of styles which now seem to embody 'new' music, it has become increasingly repetitive, and locked into static conventions for its presentation and composition.3 This is due, in part, to the recent emphasis given to its entrepreneurial activities but, as I will also show, the resistance of organisations to programming women's music means that a whole dimension that might be opened up as 'new' continues to escape our notice.

The reputation of the music-in which the widespread belief is that it occupies musical territory marked by violence, discord and a hostile sound-world- means that it struggles to attract large audiences. It is imagined as music that is not easy on the ear, and listeners frequently complain that it is incomprehensible with some even suggesting that it is noise, not music.4 Such an idea was made clear to me in the early 1990s when I worked as the music officer for the Australian chamber music organisation Musica Viva. To minimise the possibility of audiences leaving in droves at the interval break, Musica Viva adopted the practice of programming the new, thus unfamiliar, work before the interval break. It assumed that if audiences were forced to listen to the music, they would gradually develop a palate for it. But mainstream audiences have long resisted 'new' music, no matter how hard the classical music organisations have tried to introduce it. Linda Dusman makes the point that audiences who regularly attend 'classical' concerts of historic music are less likely to attend 'new' music concerts.5

Audiences for 'new' music consist mostly of practitioners and they tend to be small in number.6 'New' music composers are simultaneously fringe-dwellers and members of the avant-garde where they gather prestige.7 While 'new' music of the serialist persuasion prizes itself as a rational discourse-for Susan McClary, 'a cluster of puzzles to be solved painstakingly in seminars'8-to the ear it can sound disordered and irrational. According to McClary, the gendered implications of 'new' music's irrationality give rise to its practitioners' 'emphatic posturing about Difficulty'.9 While 'new' music is also postmodern, implying that it is 'tonal' (and to that extent 'easier on the ear'), it is rarely mistaken for other types of music such as popular music. By and large, 'new' music seems inaccessible, complex and difficult when compared to popular music.10 According to McClary, however, when 'new' music became institutionalised in the mid-twentieth century, safely couched in the academy, it began to lose its disruptive edge. To misquote McClary slightly, 'new' music has come to play the game of 'Difficulty For Its Own Sake'.11 In this view, music 'that announces Difficulty as its raison d'être does not subvert'.12

The neoliberal structures which organise 'by drawing strict boundaries, creating binary oppositions and dividing space into rigid segments with a hierarchical structure' are alive and well in the places inhabited by 'new' music practitioners.13 Like McClary, I argue that this music no longer transgresses the conventions of tonality or technical 'difficulty', a hallmark of its performance practice, but is, instead, maintaining what has long since become the status quo.14 The 'end-product'-the musical composition and the musical performance-and the individualised 'entrepreneurial subject' are core to 'new' music's modus operandi. These are constructs, however, founded on old ways of thinking which have become deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating. Rapid technological changes have impacted on music as much as elsewhere in the new convergent media age. …

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